Rethinking Authority in the Church Today

Copyright 2011 Lutheran University Press. This essay will be published by Lutheran University Press in a book entitled Sources of Authority in the Church.

[1] My concern is to sort out the kinds of authority that exist in the church.

The Questions
[2] Three basic, interlocking questions need to be considered.
What is the nature of authority? How is it to be defined and understood?
What is the nature of authority in the church? Is there anything distinctive about authority in the church as compared with elsewhere?
How does the contemporary context affect the exercise and understanding of authority in the church?

The Difficulties
[3] We often think of an authority as the capacity to settle a matter. But when we apply this definition to Lutheran theology, there are serious difficulties:

[4] For Luther, the authority seems to be the Word of God, but this Word is not to be identified with the Bible, nor with church authority, nor with a particular sermon, nor with any of those things which may be vehicles for the Word. The Word of God is what God is communicating to humans at the present time. The difficulty here is determining what can legitimately claim to be this contemporary Word. For Christians, the living Word is the highest authority, but appealing to the Word of God does not work well to settle contextually specific theological, ethical, or church political issues we would like to have decided.

[5] If we assume that the account in Exodus 3 is revelatory, the second difficulty is that God is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In other words, God is dynamic and interacting. God is relational and engaged in an ongoing way. In Exodus 3 God does not allow Godself to be domesticated or comprehended. To borrow a phrase from Samuel Terrien, God is an “elusive presence.” To make the point another way, one common biblical image is God going on ahead, calling God’s people to move forward. This means that the message of God comes to us from the future, which cannot be nailed down. If God is dynamic, it is hard to know how things can be settled.

A More Modest and More Cautious Understanding of Authority
[6] To have authority, I would suggest, is to have a claim on our attention — on our outlook and/or our behavior. We’ll explore this definition in a moment, but before doing so let us consider some theological reasons to be cautious:

[7] What has come to be known as Luther’s “theology of the cross” is a complex concept, but the function at play here has to do with our knowledge of God. Luther endorsed the claim made by his teachers that we humans cannot predict what God will do. Their via moderna argued that God was free to do whatever God chose, and that we could only know what God would do after God had actually done it. Who could have expected a savior born in a stable and condemned to die on a cross? But Luther pushed things a step farther. He argued against scholastic theology, which tried to fill the holes in our knowledge of God and God’s ways by inference and logic: If the Bible said x, then y must logically be the case. The net result was to expand what they said could be known and to obscure the distinction between what had been revealed and what had been inferred. Doctrine became a seamless robe, full of things to be accepted as true and very difficult to change. For Luther, the startling reality of the cross calls this all into question, and theologians need to limit their claims to what has been revealed. Yes, God’s attitude toward us, God’s purpose, and something of God’s character have all been revealed. But there are dozens of unanswered questions. Why do some people suffer while others do not? What was God doing before the universe was created? What is the timetable for the second coming? The list of unanswered questions could go on and on.

[8] Luther’s point was that the range of authoritative statements about God was severely limited — far more limited than most Christians would assume. Providing “answers” to the other questions can be quite dangerous.

[9] (By the way, the slogan “Scripture alone” is an inadequate and distorting way to package the Lutheran tradition. “Scripture alone” was the slogan of Luther’s predecessors, with whom he came to disagree in very important ways. Contrary to the way this phrase is often used today, he did not think the Bible had all the answers. He did not ignore knowledge and wisdom when interpreting the Bible. Luther’s concern was to safeguard the capacity of the Scriptures to challenge and revitalize the church, not to use them to buttress a traditional theology.)

[10] A second source of caution is Luther’s insistence that the Word of God is an incarnational Word. Just as Jesus was, for him, the Word of God who became flesh and was therefore fully divine and fully human, just as the sacrament involved both bread and wine and the body and blood of the risen Lord, just as baptism was both ordinary water poured out by ordinary people and the adoptive action of God, just as preaching was both human words with all their individuality and diversity and, when done rightly, the Word of God, so are the Scriptures both the words of the human authors with all their individuality and diversity and the Word of God. The divine comes through the human; it cannot readily be distilled out.

[11] So, for example, the New Testament contains three images of Rome — one relatively neutral (in the Gospels), one relatively positive (Romans 13 and elsewhere), and one that is quite threatening (the beast of Revelation). Each of these has validity in its own context. But which is the authoritative word for today? No matter how authoritative the text might be, so long as it is an incarnate contextual Word of God, the right interpretation depends on the right reading of today’s context, and hence no argument-ending claim is possible.

[12] The net result is that we need to be cautious about the authority of anything that is incarnate. It is hard to know how anything that is human, finite, and contextual (as well as divine) conveys the kind of message that can be used to settle things.

[13] A third source of caution is Luther’s well-known fondness for paradox. What this does, I think is to undermine the authority of either statement and invite the hearer to see past the paradox to some underlying living being or living relationship. It is a signal that draws attention to the limited authority of either statement.

[14] And a fourth source of caution is Luther’s own personal experience of being enormously troubled by unanswered questions — only to discover as he wrestled with the Scriptures that the Psalmists and Jesus himself had unanswered questions. As Richard Marius points out,1 he came to see that unanswered questions were part of the human condition, and that God’s grace provided the support needed to live with those questions. One net result is a need for caution and circumspect claims. Another is the suggestion that religious leaders need to seek to deal with the anxiety that wants answers rather than providing an answer to every question.

[15] This emphasis on caution could leave us discouraged and wondering if we have anything to say. My suggestion is that this is not the case. Authority accrues to those modest claims that are consistent with the basic insights of Scripture, as seen through Christ, regarding the purpose and character of God. The claims are still testable.

Do they communicate the gospel of the unmerited adoption and steadfast love of God?
Do they foster shalom?
A Description of Authority
[16] I have already suggested that something or someone that has authority has a claim on our attention — on our outlook and/or behavior. When we discuss authority, it is important to distinguish between authority based on power, which is coercive, and the kind of authority that can be found in a social structure. We will call the latter “relational authority.” This designation “relational” is, of course, not entirely arbitrary. It is possible to consider authority to be a possession. And it is possible to consider authority to be willed by those who recognize it. But either of these is incomplete. Authority has aspects of “given-ness” and aspects of consent but is better understood relationally. Some characteristics of relational authority:

[17] Relational authority is contextual. What has a claim on my attention in one social setting may not have a claim in an entirely different setting. The words of an African chieftain can mean life or death in his tribe but be completely powerless on a street corner in downtown New York.

[18] If authority is relational, it develops over time. It takes time for the authority to show itself to be trustworthy. This is especially true in an age such as ours, when people have felt betrayed by their public authorities and are therefore very cautious about who or what they trust. The books of the Bible did not establish themselves immediately; it took time. In 170 AD Irenaeus still felt the need to argue for the inclusion of four Gospels. Apparently it was not obvious to everyone — otherwise the argument would have been unnecessary. Some of the writings in the Old Testament were likely around for quite some time before they were recognized to be religiously authoritative.

[19] If authority is relational, it develops before it is acknowledged. People begin to trust an other gradually, and only after an other has claimed their attention are they ready to say this other is an authority. An authority is recognized, not chosen.

[20] If authority is relational, it develops as a byproduct of usefulness. It contributes to the purpose or mission of that social group. After a committee member has come up with several helpful ideas, the other members will ask, “What do you think?” He or she has become an authority, even if no one has said so.

[21] Relational authority depends on a shared set of values or expectations. What a person in authority asks of others needs to make sense to them. Sometimes the leader needs to make a case. At other times, the leader depends on trust. In relational authority, there is, as Bengt Holmgren argues,2 a kind of dialectical relationship between insight (persuasion) and trust.

[22] Relational authority often is enhanced by the personal qualities of a leader or person in authority. That is, some find ways to make the case in an unusually compelling way, by connecting it with the powerful beliefs and expectations of the community. One thinks, for example, of a Martin Luther King, Jr., who could weave together basic themes from American culture and basic biblical themes in a most compelling way.

[23] Relational authority involves authenticity. In this sense it involves the truth. But the minute authenticity is confused with propositional truth, relational authority gets misunderstood or distorted.

Authority in the Church
[24] In the church the basic kind of authority is what I will call “message-oriented relational authority.” It comes from the clarity with which someone expresses and embodies the gospel message. The bearer of this authority calls attention to God’s steadfast love and to God’s remarkable vision of shalom. He or she holds up promises and embodies those promises in grace-ful living. The messenger pulls back the curtain and helps make God visible in daily life. In so doing he or she also challenges ways of living that cloud over the gospel.

[25] One form that this “message-oriented relational authority” takes is mentoring, coaching, encouraging, and supporting. It enhances the insight of others. It encourages their experimentation with ways to embody the message. It celebrates whatever serves the gospel.

[26] A second form that this “message-oriented relational authority” takes is discipline. That is, if anyone in the church speaks or lives in such a way as to undercut the gospel, that person needs to be confronted. The church needs room for experimentation and creativity, and thus we need to be cautious here, but at some point — e.g. clergy abuse — misrepresentation or misconduct has to be identified. In a bureaucratic society, we are tempted to rely on rules. But Luther’s counsel was instead to use persuasion and/or reason. This, of course, makes things more difficult, because it means that a case must be made specifying how the speaking or the behavior undermines the gospel and the community of faith.

[27] In addition to message-oriented relational authority, a second kind of authority operates. It is the authority of “management.” Someone needs to make decisions about very practical matters (buildings, budgets, and the like). This authority lies with the community as a whole, but in practice it is often ceded to a smaller body: a church council, a board, a committee, an individual, etc. Confusion arises when people begin to expect that a group which takes on management responsibilities also somehow gains “message-oriented relational authority.”

[28] What is the role of message-oriented relational authority in the church? As I have already said, it is to make room for the gospel And who has this authority? I do not know the answer, but I expect it is likely to rise up in a setting where thinking Christians hear from those in pain, recognize their own pain, listen to the marginalized, pay attention to the poets, and then all together examine the Scriptures anew. Insight occurs when the right gifted person rises up in this or a similar setting to say: “Among all of what has been said here, this is what matters. This is life-giving. This gives us hope; this overcomes our paralysis and calls us to action.”

[29] To put it another way, it is a genuinely diverse community of faith coming together in exploration of the message for today that discerns the Word of God. Here is where authority lies, but it is an elusive and fragile authority, easily subverted by privilege, by finite and incomplete vision, by self-interest, by traditionalisms and ideologies. And here we encounter the ultimate dilemma. The purpose of authority is to keep things on track. But over time the accumulated weight of authority can as easily derail. With a God who is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be,” there is no security. We walk by faith, not by sight.

[30] And yet, things do have a claim on our attention. Our neighbors have a claim on our attention. Scripture has a claim on our attention. Our mentors and coaches have a claim on our attention. Our critics have a claim on our attention. Those who are asked to lead have a claim on our attention. These have an interim authority. They can be helpful but cannot satisfy our desire for security.

Some Comments about Scriptural Authority
[31] There are at least four dimensions to the authority of the Scriptures.

[32] One dimension is that they provide the first language of faith. It is an enormous gift to have the distilled insights of more than a thousand years of communication between God and God’s people. That communication was refined and focused over time. Narratives were selected that were particularly telling, and metaphors and symbols were crafted that lifted people’s imaginations and insights to the divine. The stories and the metaphors and the symbols all invite readers to “see through” the Bible, just as they would “see through” a window, to glimpse God and to glimpse the identity of the people of God. They are also invited to “see beyond” the Bible — to catch a glimpse of the goal of it all and to find slavery incompatible with God’s vision, for example, or to recognize the full equality of women and men, even if this equality is not uniformly affirmed there. In other words, the invitation is to craft a language for today that is built on this first language but is not constrained merely to repeat it. In this regard, the incarnate character of the Bible is very important. If we are indeed hearing both the voice of John and the Word of God in a coming together of the human and the divine, then we can have some optimism that God can speak through human voices today as well. An incarnate Word in the past is an invitation to an incarnate Word today.

[33] A second dimension of the authority of the Scriptures is that they are useful. They are useful for worship, for teaching, for preaching, for fostering wisdom and informing ethical decision-making. And so we turn to them again and again, and they begin to shape our outlook, our hopes, and our behavior.

[34] A third dimension of the authority of the Scriptures is that they articulate the gospel and the call that bring the community of faith into being. The gospel is the story of what God has done. The call is to serve the neighbor and the community in such a way as to build up shalom in God’s world. Though they may be articulated in more than one way, ultimately there is only one gospel and only one call. To them the Bible gives us access.

[35] A fourth dimension: the diversity of Scripture enhances its authority rather than undermines it. The authors are more like a choir or an orchestra than a soloist. The tuba and the flute sound quite different but each in its own distinctive way contributes to the overture. If God’s Word can come through this chorus of voices, then a genuinely inclusive community can embody God’s Word today.

[36] Is there an authoritative interpretation? Well, for a particular time and place, maybe “yes.” But the interpretation is then not a last word but an appropriate word, an arresting word, a relationship-building or relationship-restoring word. It is a word with recognizable power and cogency that results in new life. But, even a cogent interpretation cannot be the last word.

Contemporary Context
[37] Dave Brauer-Rieke suggests that the pain of change is the source of much of our confusion today. I suspect that he is onto something. When the fruit basket has been upset and the categories have been scrambled, it takes time before an authority shows itself to be trustworthy.

[38] Emlyn Ott suggests that people are trying to avoid pain. This is also true. Conveying the gospel includes helping people recognize and acknowledge the pain of others and their own pain, because resurrection and hope have to be built on reality — the reality of the cross. This reality is recognized experientially.

[39] Several speakers have suggested that individualism undermines authority. This too is right. A rebuilding of community is necessary for a rebuilding of authority.

[40] For some, there is a longing for an authority structure that has disappeared, along with the community which provided its context and framework. What makes our day volatile is that people often are not patient enough to rebuild the community within which authority will again arise. They often want a shortcut. They try to enlist power on their side rather than identifying common ground.

[41] Bishop Brauer-Rieke considers authority for Lutherans to be “dynamic, confronting, and fluid” (p. 4). “How can that be?” some may ask. A fluid authority seems to be no authority at all. In my opinion, Brauer-Rieke is right. Authority is dynamic because God is dynamic. It is the authority of the trail boss, rather than the authority of the by-laws of a settled city.

Concluding Comments
[42] Today more than ever, authority comes from a compelling vision that inspires hope and provides avenues for engaged living. The anxiety that characterizes Americans sometimes leads to paralysis and at other times to polarization. It leads to a desire for a quick fix and an inability to imagine alternatives.3 By inspiring hope and providing avenues for engaged living, the compelling vision overcomes paralysis. By freeing us from ideology, it overcomes polarization.

[43] Unless the Lutheran church offers this compelling vision that inspires hope and provides avenues for engaged living, increasing numbers of people will see the church simply as a flawed institution, busily rearranging the proverbial chairs on the deck while the ship is on its way down. In order for the church to have this compelling vision, it must invite people into a community where they can experience its first fruits. The vision has to become real in an incarnate way, not just in words. Only then can it speak with integrity.

[44] The authority that the church offers today is an incarnate authority, a message-oriented relational authority. It opens doors and gives life but is not equipped to settle every management question. For these we have freedom, each other, and the gift of wisdom.


1. Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999).

2. Bengt Holmgren, Paul and Power: The Structure of Authority in the Primitive Church as Reflected in the Pauline Epistles (Lund, Sweden: CWK Gleerup, 1978), p. 132.

3. Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006), p. 9.

Darrell Jodock

The Rev. Dr. Darrell Jodock is the Drell and Adeline Berhardson Distinguished Professor in Religion Emeritus at Gustavus Adolphus College.